Wednesday, Sep 30, 2009
On October 13, 2008, a visitor came to the visitor center desk with several pieces of bone and leather he had found near the Cornfield Trail on the David. R. Miller Farm at Antietam National Battlefield. The items initially turned in included a jaw fragment containing teeth, several bones, and a fragment of leather found at the opening of a groundhog (woodchuck) burrow. The exact location was not identified, so park staff searched the area based on the description provided.
Among the many groundhog burrows in the field, one was located that had several smaller pieces of bone and leather around the opening. Information regarding the initial and subsequent findings and location were protected until a full archeological investigation could be completed. During the time between the discovery and archeological investigation, the woodchuck was trapped and relocated and additional materials that had surfaced were recovered and secured separately until a determination was made whether we were dealing with one or more unmarked graves. Incorporated below is the latest briefing statement prepared by Stephen R. Potter, Ph.D. with the National Capital Region’s Archeology Program.
During the period from December 1-3, 2008, National Park Service archeologists Stephen R. Potter, Ph.D., Marian Creveling, Karen Orrence, and Bob Sonderman of the Regional Archeology Program, National Capital Region, conducted excavations at the site of a previously unknown and unmarked battlefield burial. The battlefield burial was brought to the attention of Antietam National Battlefield personnel on October 13, 2008, by a park visitor who discovered 4 bones, a jaw fragment containing 4 teeth, and a piece of leather at the mouth of a ground hog burrow. Subsequent investigations by park and regional staff determined that ground hogs had disturbed an unmarked soldier’s grave in the northern portion of the park, on the historic David R. Miller farm. As a result, the Superintendent and the Regional Archeologist made arrangements to excavate, record, and exhume the remainder of the battlefield burial, and any associated artifacts, in order to learn as much as possible about the soldier.
He was a Union soldier fighting in a veteran New York State regiment that had seen hard campaigning, judging by the replacement of 4 of the New York State Excelsior buttons on the front of his coat or jacket with US general service buttons. Seven coat buttons (3 New York State Excelsior buttons and 4 US general service buttons) were recovered, along with 2 New York State cuff buttons from the area of the left sleeve. The 2 New York cuff buttons tell us that this was a New York state-issued coat or jacket and not Federal issue. In addition, 6 tin-washed, 4-hole, iron trouser buttons, used to attach suspender straps, were found. The dark stain of the lower portion of a leather suspender strap and a badly corroded, iron suspender adjuster were recorded in the field, to the left of where a line of 3 coat buttons was discovered. A US waist belt plate, with oval studs on the back (the so-called puppy-paw back, an early war issue), was still attached to a portion of the leather belt, which the brass front of the buckle helped to preserve by precipitating cupric salts into the soil surrounding it.
The New York State soldier was a young man, between 17 and 19 years of age, when he was killed in action on September 17, 1862. Open, well-defined suture lines of the cranial (or skull) bones, the partial eruption of the third molar or wisdom tooth, and an unfused, distal head to the right femur (thigh bone) provide the basis for estimating his age at the time of death. He was buried in a very shallow grave, probably no deeper than 16 to 18 inches. Over time, agricultural activity, combined with recent ground hog activity, severely disturbed his gravesite and skeletal remains. NPS archeologists recovered 401 fragments from 24 different bones out of a total of 206 in the adult human skeleton—most of them coming from the skull and both legs and feet. It is hoped that ongoing forensic and historical research may, yet, provide more details about this young soldier.
After the preliminary report and press releases in January 2009, Superintendent J.W. Howard was contacted by several groups interested in assisting with the proper reburial of the remains and artifacts. After a contact was received from the Director of the New York State Military Museum & Veterans Research Center in Saratoga Springs, NY, a decision was made to have the remains returned to New York for interment in the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration.
A transfer ceremony was held on September 15, 2009, at the Antietam National Cemetery, as part of Operation: Returning Home, which was coordinated by the New York State Military Museum, Military Forces Honor Guard – NYANG, and the National Park Service-Antietam National Battlefield. The New York contingent provided a period coffin to hold the remains of the unknown soldier. The remains were initially placed in a smaller repository box crafted by Antietam carpenters Lynn Keener and George Slifer out of wood from a black walnut tree that had fallen on the Mumma Farm at Antietam NB. Antietam rangers served as pallbearers and transferred the soldier’s remains to the New York Honor Guard. Operation: Returning Home then continued for the trip to New York with stops at the Duffy Chapel at Camp Smith on September 15, the Saratoga Military Museum on September 16, followed by the funeral on September 17. The NPS was represented at the funeral by staff from Saratoga NHP.